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The Curse Of The “One Hit Wonder” – Can Award-Winning Recognition Hinder Future Success?


  • Receiving awards and gaining recognition can negatively impact inventors’ future creativity
  • Organisations must create the right conditions to sustain creativity over time
  • Recognising the creative process, learning from failure and avoiding “over-rewarding” could boost future creative success

In 1964, four years after the release of the now literary classic “To Kill A Mockingbird”, its author Harper Lee gave a rare interview to fellow author and radio show host Roy Newsquist in New York. Reflecting on her career and her future plans she said, “I want to do the best I can with the talent God gave me. I hope to goodness that every novel I do gets better and better. In other words, all I want to be is the Jane Austin of south Alabama”.

However for Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird remained, for many years, her only literary release. The much-awaited follow-up, “Go Set A Watchman”, was finally published in 2015, just a year before her death in 2016. It was, in the majority, panned by critics. Indeed, the Guardian’s review offered this rather blunt analysis; “Mockingbird indisputably did quite a lot of good, and it’s very good at what it sets out to do. There’s a reason Mockingbird is so loved: it is charming, beautifully controlled and heart-warming. The answer to whether Watchman is any good aesthetically is simple: not very.

Writers, artists, actors or anyone aspiring for creative success have one thing in common, they are often perfectionists and their own harshest critics as a result. This is inherently what makes their work so valuable.

Artists are, in their own right, innovators in that they constantly strive to create something new and improved in their work. It’s not only fuelled by an aspiration to be better, but also to survive. After all, as Lee seems to have recognised, you’re only as good as your last pice of work.

The same can be true in the business world, where the ability to capitalise on a trend, zeitgeist or market niche – and to do so with a degree of flair – can not only keep a company’s popularity rating high, but also ensure they continue to turn a profit.

But, it turns out, there really is such a thing as being too successful when it comes to latching on to the “next big thing” or in replicating a prior triumph.

For creatives, the fluidity and ingenuity of their seemingly natural gifts can be a double edged sword – consider the author grappling with writer’s block, the academy award winning movie director seeking their next big project, overshadowed by the expectations to match or exceed what came before. This one-hit-wonder phenomenon is perhaps most commonly seen in the music industry; from the Knack’s iconic “My Sharona” in 1979, to the arguably less musically revered but equally popular “Macarena” by Los del Río in 1993, to Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” in 2011. Despite all hitting the coveted number one spot in charts globally, widespread recognition and acclaim, each of these artists failed to find their muse and produce another hit. Some stopped recording entirely.

But is the curse of the one hit wonder a real problem to be tackled? To prove that the danger of creative juices failing to flow for a second time is indeed an all too real possibility, new research from Dirk Deichmann of the Rotterdam School of Management  and Markus Baer, professor of organisational behaviour at Olin Business School finds that giving awards to those behind successful or novel ideas can significantly decrease their likelihood of producing any future creative work.

The research is prefaced with the above quote from Harper Lee, sharing her literary ambitions and acknowledging that simple hope and a desire to do better is not always enough to create a continual stream of innovative successes. Sometimes, a past accomplishment can become a mental burden.

The paper states: “Like other role identities, a creative role identity emerges over time. As individuals look back on their actions, they engage in an interpretative process reconciling them in an attempt to confirm and support the identity. Thus, past creative actions, when viewed reflexively by the self, can contribute to the strengthening of a creative role identity”. However this potential flourishing is prevented by higher expectations of oneself as a result of recognition, as the researchers explain. “In our study, we found that people who develop novel ideas and receive rewards for them start to see themselves primarily as a ‘creative person,'” Professor Baer said.

It’s true that in any industry, creative or otherwise, those ambitious individuals within it strive for recognition, and their efforts are duly recognised and encouraged by management and superiors. But, Professors Baer and Deichmann say this, paradoxically, can be a bad thing.

“Awards are only bad for people producing novel stuff because they make the creative identity of such people salient, causing them to feel threatened by the prospect of compromising this identity with mediocre work,” the paper states. “This newfound identity, which is special and rare, is then in need of protection. Essentially, once a person is in the creative limelight, stepping out of it – by producing a novel idea that disappoints or pales in comparison to earlier work – is threatening and to be avoided.”

In other words, fear of failure the second time around can cause producers to avoid taking risks that would threaten their creative identity. Is this fear ultimately what lead Lee to delay the publication of “Go Set A Watchman” for so many years?

“Harper Lee is a perfect example of this phenomenon,”  Professor Baer said. “Her first book, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ is one of the bestselling and most acclaimed American novels of all time. Yet she didn’t publish again until 55 years later. And her second book, ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ written in the mid-1950s, is considered to be a first draft of her legendary one hit wonder”. Whilst taking a break when facing a creative brick wall is often advised by the experts, a 50 plus year hiatus isn’t just unrealistic for most industries, its unthinkable.

Departing from legendary novella, the researchers conducted an archival study of 224 first-time cookbook authors in the United Kingdom in order to gain a more comparable insight of this one hit wonder phenomenon to typical industry. From their sample they found only 50% went on to produce a second book.

Interestingly, they also discovered that the more novel the initial one was, the less likely the author was to produce a second. It seems innovation and sell out success in the culinary world can be a quick flambé in the fryer.

If innovation can be so easily stifled when following a previous success, how can creative individuals best manage their own egos and psyches so they can rise above the pressure of what came before? Professors Deichmann and Baer sought to answer this too through a series of experiments. First they asked participants to develop a concept for a potential cookbook. Half of the participants were told that their idea was “highly original and novel,” while the other half were told their idea was “very solid and traditional.” A subgroup of participants was also told that their ideas were “among the ideas most likely to make a big splash in the food community.”

From there, participants had the option to develop a second cookbook concept or to build upon their original idea with a marketing plan. The experiment showed that when people produce a highly novel, award-winning idea they are less likely to produce a follow-up idea, backing up their original archival findings.

A further experiment built upon the original and allowed the cookbook authors to also precisely pinpoint the psychological mechanisms at play. In the two experimental studies, the percentage of first-time producers who decided to develop a second idea, as opposed to exploiting the first idea, was 21 and 34, respectively, showing that creators can boost their chances by recognising their own scenario.

“Participants experienced a greater threat to their creative identity when producers of award-winning, novel work were confronted with the possibility of having to continue on their creative journey, by having to produce original work yet again,” said Deichmann.

It is, of course, highly unlikely that industry will do away with awards altogether, so how can we be sure that recognising an individual’s brilliance will not negatively impact upon their future endeavours? The researchers offered the following strategies for using awards in a way that better encourages creativity:

  • Firstly, make sure that rewards and recognition are not only offered for the outcome of the creative process, but also for the process of developing the outcome – recognising the effort as well as the accomplishment
  • Reward both success and the ability to learn from failure.
  • Avoid glorifying individuals who have developed one creative success by offering an outsized reward for their work
  • Finally, If you want to glorify people, celebrate those who can produce creative work repeatedly.

Perhaps, as research has shown, it’s better that we make people feel comfortable and included, rather than isolating them by putting them on a pedestal before their careers have really begun.

It’s only then innovative talent can escape the tired cliche of being the ‘one hit wonder’.

By, James Dugdale

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